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Wash U's Waterston Uproots, Goes West for UW

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After more than a quarter-century of teaching and a decade of DNA sequencing, Bob Waterston has become the face of genomics for Washington University in St. Louis. So when he leaves — most likely December or January — for a new post at the University of Washington School of Medicine, his move will be much noted.

“It was indeed a very hard choice to make,” says Waterston, 58, who brought WashU’s sequencing center to national prominence. “In the end, it was the sense of adventure of doing something new that was attractive enough to make me want to take it.”

Waterston started off 26 years ago at the university in anatomy neurobiology and transferred to the genetics department in 1980. Ten years later, he kicked off what would become the Genome Sequencing Center with a pilot project on C. elegans. His lab is credited with providing the map used for the Human Genome Project and for completing a fifth of the human genome sequence. And virtually everyone in the industry recognizes Waterston as one of the most vocal supporters of the public effort and a crusader for publishing all data in the private-public paper battle.

At the University of Washington, Waterston will head up the relatively new genome sciences department, a combination of the genetics and the molecular biotechnology departments. He follows the path of Maynard Olson and Phil Green, both of whom were previously at WashU and now hang their shingles at the Seattle school. Waterston’s move from the St. Louis sequencing powerhouse is also reminiscent of Lee Hood, who left instrumentation heavyweight Caltech for UW in 1992 when Bill Gates donated $12 million to the school to lure Hood and his group there. In fact, Waterston will occupy the endowed Gates chair that Hood vacated when he left to start his Institute for Systems Biology in 2000.

“There’s a commitment on the part of the school and the university to develop this whole area,” Waterston says, adding that the school plans a “significant expansion” of the department and facilities in the next six to eight years.

“I’ve spent a lot of time gathering the information about genome content and I’m anxious to explore [it] now,” he says. Waterston says his UW group will “bring together people of different disciplines” — including computational biology, genome technologies, human genetics, and model organisms — “to interpret genomic sequences … so that the various programs can benefit from the different perspectives and also focus them on the most relevant and important problems.” Among the most pressing for him is understanding human variation, primarily to figure out how it connects to phenotype and disease.

As for WashU, where well-known Rick Wilson will take over, Waterston is bound and determined to have his lab’s section of the human genome sequence finished by the time he leaves. It’ll be a major accomplishment for him, though it will give him more work at UW, where he’ll begin wrestling meaning from available sequence.

— Meredith Salisbury

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